At the cliffhanger ending of Scan, Tate loses the very thing he was fighting to protect, what his father had called the key to human survival. Tate doesn't have much time to worry about it because he needs to get away, to ensure he and Christina are safe. His father left him one last thing that can do just that—a safe house, which turns out to be a clue to what's really threatening the planet. As Tate follows the clues his father left behind, he starts to uncover the truth, realizing he's up against an enemy he's only beginning to understand.
A riveting, fast-paced "we are not alone" adventure, Burn thrills to the very end.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Walter Jury works in the film industry. Burn is his second novel.
Read an Excerpt
IN MY WORLD, THINGS ARE COMPLICATED. AT LEAST, they are right now. I’ve just destroyed a Walmart. At any moment, my worst enemy is going to come charging out of its front entrance, determined to hunt me down. I’m standing, exposed and vulnerable, at the side of the road not a quarter mile away, so it wouldn’t take him long. And the thing I’ve been fighting for is gone.
The past three days have rearranged my understanding of myself and this planet so drastically that I’m not sure I can cram another hard truth into my head. The things I do know tumble over one another in my mind:
My mother is in surgery. For a bullet wound. She can’t help me.
Race Lavin, the guy she was trying to protect me from—who also happens to be part of an alien race called the H2—is probably regaining consciousness right now in the hardware section.
His men have taken my father’s invention, the scanner that tells the difference between H2 and human, the device my dad said was the key to our survival, the thing he died for. And his best friend, George, the guy I was trusting to help me put the pieces of this puzzle together, is a few feet away from me, slumped over the wheel of his car. His blood is smeared across the seat. Another life lost in our secret war.
“Tate, I think we have to go.” Christina’s slender fingers encircle my wrist. “I hear sirens.”
I blink. Wisps of her dark blond hair blow around her face, which is pale with fear but set with determination.
“I don’t know where . . .” I have no idea where to go. My mom said I should meet her at the hospital, but it doesn’t seem safe.
Nothing seems safe.
Christina’s grip tightens. “We need to move, though. I’m not sure it matters where right now. As long as we’re away from here.”
I take one last look into George’s bullet-riddled car. I would have expected it to be armored, seeing as he works for Black Box, a private weapons manufacturer. But even if it was, it was no match for the large-caliber ammo Race’s agents were firing from their shiny black helicopter. Which means they could tear through our current ride—a sedan borrowed from Rufus Bishop and his inbred clan of human supremacists—like paper. There’s already a bullet hole in the thing’s rear panel, a farewell gift from the Bishops in return for the accidental death of Aaron, Rufus’s oldest son.
I’ve made a lot of enemies this week. Alien and human.
My only ally is tugging me back toward our car. I have so many things to figure out, so many things to do, but as her hand slips into mine, I realize I need to prioritize. And protecting her is at the top of the list. I put my feet in motion and jog beside her. We jump into the car, and I swing us onto the road, heading north.
“Are we going back to New York?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say hoarsely. “I need to get into my father’s lab and dig up what he was working on, but I have a feeling Core agents will be waiting for me to show up.” The H2 central leadership has a history of brutally suppressing any threat to their secrets, and I am most definitely that, even without the scanner. Just before I choked him out, Race made it clear that the device wasn’t the only thing he was after. He wanted me to help him get into my father’s lab. As. If.
“Your dad’s phone.”
Her voice yanks me out of my churning thoughts. “What?”
Christina touches the side of my face. “It’s buzzing in your pocket, Tate,” she says quietly. “Why don’t you let me drive? You need to think things through, and I can manage this part.”
I pull off the state highway into a subdivision, parking in front of the community pool. We switch places, and I lean over and kiss her cheek. “I’d be in serious trouble without you,” I say, and then instantly regret it. She shouldn’t even be here with me. Her biggest worry should be passing the chemistry final tomorrow, but right now, missing an entire week of school is the least of her problems.
I stare down at my hands, using my thumbnail to scrape off a few red smudges. This is the third time in as many days that I am wearing the blood of someone I care about. This time it’s from George, but last time . . . I look over at my girlfriend. The white bandage is visible beneath her thick, wavy hair. It covers the stitched-up graze wound given to her by Core agents. She’s not even recovered from the concussion she sustained two days ago. She hasn’t had a chance, because we’ve been running and fighting nearly every moment since it happened. “Christina . . . you really need to see a doctor about your head—remember what David Bishop told you? You need a CT scan. Maybe you should—”
“Don’t even, Tate. I feel fine. And I can tell by the look on your face that you’re about to try to be noble and send me home, but it’s not going to happen. I’m in this with you, and that’s it. Save your head space for something else, like seeing who’s trying to reach you.” She frowns. “Or who’s trying to reach your dad, I guess,” she murmurs.
I pull my dad’s sleek, untraceable phone from my pocket. “Someone texted.”
“Who is it?”
I stare at the icon, a black envelope on the screen. And the name next to it is—“Raymond A. Spruance.” I touch the black envelope, and a box pops up, requesting a password.
“Is that one of The Fifty?” she asks, sounding nervous. The Fifty are a group of human families who understand the threat from the Core very well—they’ve been defending themselves from this alien elite ever since the H2 crashed their ships into the oceans four hundred years ago, refugees fleeing from something pretty bad, if I’m to trust Race Lavin. Which I won’t. But my father, who sat on the board of The Fifty, warned me to be careful with them, and he was totally right. So far, two of their number—Rufus Bishop and my dad’s former boss, Brayton Alexander—have tried to kill us.
“I don’t know, but the name . . .” I stare at it, sifting through my memories. “This isn’t about The Fifty. Raymond A. Spruance was a famous admiral during World War II.” My heart picks up its pace. An encrypted, secret text from a long-dead admiral—one my dad made me study in depth. “What if this message is from my dad?” I whisper.
“Tate . . .”
I can tell by the way she says my name that she’s worried I might be losing my mind. “No, listen. This is exactly like something he would do.” For years, he made me study military history. Along with chemistry, physics, ballistics, jiu-jitsu, and a host of other things. I thought he was just a hard-ass, but he was preparing me for this, and now I need to use what I know. “What if he set up some sort of messaging system in case something happened to him?”
“Sent to his own phone?”
“Who knows where else this message went?”
“But, Tate, how would it know something had happened to him? And . . . he died on Monday. It’s Thursday now. Though it feels a lot longer than that,” she adds quietly.
“I know. Something could have triggered it, though. Maybe because he hasn’t logged in in the last seventy-two hours. Or there was an intrusion in his systems, or someone unauthorized tried to enter his lab? Race straight up told me that the Core want to get in there.” I stare at the password box. “It will only open for people who know the password.”
“Do you know it?”
“No, but that’s kind of the point. I’ll bet he didn’t tell anyone.”
Or maybe he did. His last words to me were When the time comes . . . it’s Josephus. There are eight little sections in the password box—that’s how long the password must be. My fingers shake a little as I type Josephus.
The screen flashes red, and the upper left quadrant goes black. “Shit.” I bow my head and try to get my heart to slow down. I need to think. He didn’t send a message under the name “Spruance” randomly. I type 07031886—the birth date of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.
The screen flashes red again, and the lower left quadrant goes black. I’m guessing I’m running out of chances. If I don’t figure this out, this message might disappear, and it’s important. It has to be.
I blow a long breath from between pursed lips, thinking about Spruance. His nickname was Electric Brain. I slowly type electric. Another red flash, and the upper right quadrant goes dark. “Damn!”
What is wrong with me? I’ve burned through three of four shots at getting this message, all in less than a minute. I’m supposed to be thinking like my dad, but instead I’m thinking like . . . me. My dad made me study at least a hundred major battles that took place throughout the centuries; he was a fan of Spruance in particular because the guy stayed cool in the midst of chaos, and my dad valued that highly. Spruance was involved in the Battle of Midway and won a Distinguished Service Medal afterward, and Dad actually made me memorize the citation, because he said that those qualities would help a man get through anything. It had commended Spruance on his endurance and tenacity. And this password is eight characters long.
I hold my breath and type tenacity.
The screen flashes green. A message appears:
BROKEN BY IT, I, TOO, MAY BE; BOW TO IT I NEVER WILL. AND, JUST IN CASE: MARGARET DEAN, I HAVE LOVED YOU ALWAYS.
“What does it say?” Christina asks, and her brow furrows as I tell her. “Are you sure that’s from your dad?”
I swallow the lump in my throat. “Yeah. The first part is a quote. Abraham Lincoln said it.” And God, it’s like my dad was predicting his own death. Especially because—“Margaret Dean was Raymond Spruance’s wife. I think my dad is referring to my mom. I wonder if she got the message, too.” It’ll tear her heart out if she gets access to it, and she’s so smart that I bet she could figure it out.
“What’s he trying to tell you?”
Dad always planned ahead. Four steps ahead, Rufus Bishop had told me. “Christina, I think we need to go to Kentucky.”
She laughs. “What?”
“Whenever Dad had me study a specific person, like a general or a president or whomever, he told me to go back to the very beginning, because if I understood where a man came from, I could understand what shaped his thoughts.”
“And Spruance was born in Kentucky?”
“No. He was born in Maryland. But this quote is from Lincoln, and Dad never did stuff by accident. He’s trying to tell me—and maybe my mom—to meet him . . .” I clench my fists. “He’s trying to tell us to go to Lincoln’s birthplace. Which happens to be Hodgenville, Kentucky.” I program it into the GPS on his phone. “It should take us about eight hours to get there.”
“We’ll have to get gas.”
I curse. “We can’t use my debit card. It’ll tell the Core exactly where we are.”
She smiles grimly. “Good thing I stole some cash from the professor.” She pulls his wallet from the pocket of her sweatpants and hands it to me. It’s an expensive-looking leather thing with CW on it. Charles Willetts. A friend of my mother’s who turned out to be an enemy, though I’m still not sure what side he was on. He never scanned himself, and thinking back, I wonder if he avoided it on purpose. He was supposedly H2, but he wanted to keep the scanner away from them. He wanted to get it to George instead, even though they were seemingly on opposite sides.
I peek inside the wallet. “There’s at least a hundred. It’ll get us there.” I raise my head. “Did he hurt you?”
Her mouth tightens. “Only a little. He . . . he got really weird after you left, Tate.” She shudders. “He was pulling at the neck of my shirt, saying he needed to touch my skin . . .”
I take her hand, wishing I could find Willetts and kill the creepy old guy. She squeezes my fingers as she says, “He got distracted when someone started banging on the door, and I grabbed the gun and hit him with it. I took his wallet and keys and ran.”
“How did you get out?”
“Same way you did, judging by the dent you put in the roof of that SUV in the parking lot. It was crazy, all these ambulances and stuff, a helicopter landing on the lawn in front of that university Rotunda, so I slipped away in the chaos.”
And she could have gone anywhere. She could be halfway to New York by now. Yet she came straight to me. I stroke her hand. “You’re amazing.” And I love her. I told her as much last night, but it turns out she was dead asleep. I want to tell her again, but I also want it to be the right time. Preferably when we’re not running for our lives.
Christina turns on the radio and sets the station when she finds some of her cherry-flavored pop music. I sit back and allow myself the luxury of staring at her while she sings along. We motor down the road, heading for a tiny town in central Kentucky that is, I hope, the location of one of my dad’s safe houses. If I really understand who my dad was, though, it won’t be just a place to lie low. There’s a reason he’d send us that kind of message, a reason he’d direct us to that place specifically. It’s not New York, and it’s not his lab, but I’m hoping that once we get there, some answers will be waiting.
SWEAT PRICKS AT THE BACK OF MY NECK AS THE LATE-AFTERNOON sun beats down on us. Christina shifts slightly, trying not to make any noise. We’re squatting behind one of the many chokeberry bushes in this large yard, having walked here from the gravel road about a half mile away.
In front of us is a shack. Like, really, a shack. Rotting clapboard, cracked and broken windows, front door hanging off its hinges. No sign of life anywhere, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being cautious. When we rolled into town, we went straight to the birthplace of Lincoln, but as soon as I saw the National Park sign, I knew it wasn’t a place my dad would locate a safe house or any kind of meeting place. So we headed to the Hodgenville town hall and looked at property records. My dad’s name wasn’t anywhere to be found. Neither was my mom’s. Or mine. But there was one name I recognized: Raymond A. Spruance bought a property on the outskirts of town about two years ago, and here we are.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Christina whispers.
I glance over at her. She looks dead tired, and I’m sure she’s craving a hot shower, a nice meal, and a long sleep. I know I am. “If this isn’t it, we’ll go back to that hotel we passed in town, okay? But let’s investigate first. Come on. I don’t think anyone’s here.”
We come out from behind the bushes and cross the yard, then carefully mount the rickety stairs to the shade of the porch. I lead the way as we edge around the door and into the shack. The floor is dusty and bare . . . except for an old sock lying in the corner. I walk over to it, and when I see the musical note stitched on the ankle, I start to laugh.
“What’s up?” Christina asks, coming over to me.
I point at the musical note on the sock. “Did you know there was a famous composer named Frederic Archer?”
Her arms slide around my waist. “So this is definitely your dad’s place, then?”
“Yeah, has to be,” I say, my voice strained. I stand right on top of the sock and look around to see what this vantage point shows me. There’s no furniture in this place, which is an open room with two closed doors at the back, maybe leading to a bedroom and a kitchen. Nothing’s written on the walls, and the ceiling—wait. There’s a rusty nail hammered into the wooden board right above my head. I reach up and twist it, pulling it out, my breath coming faster.
Nothing happens. I look down at the bent nail, which has turned my fingers orange with iron oxide. It was right above my head. Right above the sock. I kick the ragged thing aside, uncovering a small hole in the floor. I kneel next to it and then, following my instincts, insert the nail into the hole. It catches, and a deep vibration thrums up my arm. Christina clutches at my shoulder while the house shakes and the door behind me unlatches, opening a crack. I push it ajar in time to see the floor of the room sliding open, revealing a metal staircase descending into darkness.
I stand up, stick the nail back in its hole in the ceiling for future use, and take Christina’s hand. “Definitely my dad’s place.” And it’s both awesome and gut wrenching. “Come on.”
Together, we descend the stairs, our palms skimming along the cool concrete walls. I feel another vibration before I hear it, and I look up to see the floor sliding across the opening to the staircase, plunging us into total darkness. Christina touches my shoulder, and I put my arm around her. “It’s okay. Just keep a hand in front of you so you don’t hit a wall.”
Groping in the inky murk, we walk down a few more steps and reach the bottom. My hand brushes a metal door, and I feel my way to a keypad, which lights up as soon as I touch it.
“Please say you know the password,” Christina says.
“I might.” My heart beats a jittery rhythm in my chest as I punch in Josephus.
It buzzes and lets out a tiny electric shock. I yank my hand back with a yelp and shake the pain from my fingers. “I guess that wasn’t it,” I mutter, frustration prickling along my limbs. Goddamn. Another dead end. Dad wouldn’t have wasted his final breath on that name, on that message, if it wasn’t important. So what the hell did he mean? I grit my teeth. It barely matters right now, because I’ve trapped myself—and my girlfriend—in the basement of a shack in the middle of freaking nowhere. What matters now is finding out what the password actually is.
I try tenacity. Shock. Spruance. Shock. Scanner—“Shit!” I step back, the painful tingles coursing up my fingers.
Christina’s breath is warm in my ear. “Slow down. Take a few minutes and think about it. We’re okay. No one’s chasing us at the moment. It’s all right.” Her arms are tight around my waist, like she’s trying to hold me up. “Have you tried passwords he used in the past?”
I blink down at the obnoxious keypad. I can almost hear my dad’s grim chuckle. The shock isn’t damaging, just annoyingly painful. Like my dad’s criticisms. I blow out a breath, and then I slowly type my mother’s middle name, one of his favorites despite the obvious security risk. And . . . no shock. The door clicks and swings open. Several lamps and overhead lights illuminate the space, motion-activated, I guess.
“Whoa,” Christina mutters as we walk into an apartment, echoing my sentiments perfectly.
This place looks exactly like our apartment in New York, minus the windows. Same furniture. Same layout. Even a few of the same family photos. All that’s missing is my stuff, strewn all over the coffee table. I close the metal door behind us and head for the kitchen. And sure enough, when I pull open the refrigerator, I see several Meal Number Tens. Eight ounces pinto bean soup with lean ham. Four wheat crackers. Two ounces dried pineapple, banana, and mango. Two ounces mixed nuts. “Hungry?” I say to Christina, pulling two of them out.
“Thanks,” she says, taking them. “Are you going to tell me how you’re doing with this? It’s so strange.”
I shrug. “Not for my dad. If I’m right, he’ll have a lab here, too. I need to go take a look at it, but let’s eat first. You look like you’re about to fall over.”
We sit at the table, and as I take my usual seat, I think of the last time I did. The last time I saw my dad as he was supposed to be, combed and pressed and ticked off at me. We’d been eating breakfast with George, and they’d been talking about population estimates, and how my dad’s calculations showed the numbers shifting more quickly than anticipated. Now I know he meant there are more H2 every day, and fewer humans. But there were also anomalies—fourteen of them. And, thinking about how George’s skin flashed orange under the light of the scanner instead of red or blue like everyone else, I have to wonder if he was one of those anomalies. I wish I knew what that meant.
After we’re finished, I try to call my mom, but her phone goes straight to voicemail. I send her a text: SAFE. Call soon? I hope she’ll understand my meaning. And if she got Dad’s message, too, she might even know where we are. Still, I really want to hear her voice right now, and I need to know she’s okay. I can only hope she’s safe in the hospital, sleeping off the anesthesia, and not in the hands of the Core. Maybe Angus McClaren flew from Chicago to help her out. She said they were friends. I don’t like thinking of her alone and vulnerable—especially because I left her that way. After a few minutes of waiting for a response, I start to poke around the apartment. It’s precisely like my home in New York, but there’s no sign my dad was ever here, save the fact that the fridge is stocked.
Finally, we make our way down yet another set of stairs and find a door that looks exactly like the one leading to my dad’s lab. Except: I don’t have my dad’s fingerprint. It’s sitting in a plastic case in my room in New York. Exhausted, I lean against the wall. Another freaking puzzle to solve.
“Tate, it feels late,” Christina murmurs.
I’m about to argue when I notice the shadows beneath her eyes. I pull out my dad’s phone. It’s only eight, though it feels way past midnight. “I know what you mean. This can wait until tomorrow. Let’s go get some sleep.” We’ve been up since four, and I barely got two hours of rest last night.
We take showers, and I find some clothes for us in the drawers of the bedroom—clothes that fit me, like he knew I’d come. With wet hair and heavy limbs, we settle onto my bed. I’m relieved that Christina doesn’t ask to sleep somewhere else, because I need her here beside me. She rests her head in the crook of my shoulder, slides her arm over my chest, and settles in. “Thank you,” I whisper. For so many things. For being all I have in the world right now. For sticking by me.
She squeezes me like she hears every thought, and then we drift into sleep.
• • •
I awake with a gasp, yanking myself out of a dream of my dad tossing ice water on my face. I grab for his phone and see that it’s four in the morning—the time he usually woke me up to work out. Wincing at the memory, I inch out from under Christina, resting her head on the pillow and allowing myself to stroke her cheek before tiptoeing out of the room. I need to get into his lab. Maybe he left something for me. He had food in the fridge, clothes for me in the drawers. He was prepared for me to come. I pad down the stairs to the lab and stare at the entry mechanism. A fingerprint scanner. On impulse, I press my thumb to it.
And to my shock, the screen flashes green and says: Welcome, Tate. Password?
“I have no idea what the password is,” I mumble. But . . . my dad wanted me to get in here. He programmed it to accept my thumbprint, and not just his own. And then it occurs to me—what if I wasn’t the only one who could hack? He had no idea I’d invaded his systems, but what if he’d been invading mine? With shaky eagerness, I punch in the last password I used to access my server at home. It works. “You wily asshole,” I whisper, chuckling to myself. “You must think you’re pretty clever.” It comes out strained. I never could have anticipated missing him this much.
The cool interior of the lab raises goose bumps on my arms for more reasons than the temperature. Once again, it’s a replica of my father’s lab in New York. Some of the same weaponry lines the walls. It’s chillingly familiar—right down to the screen across the room, black with three numbers in the center:
That bottom number . . . It used to read: 14. Two fewer anomalies now. Once again, I think back to George and how he flashed orange. Everyone else had flashed either red for H2 or blue for human. Was he one of the two who are gone now? Does my dad have some satellite orbiting Earth, scanning the population? I’m betting he does. I just don’t know why he wanted to do that. Population numbers aren’t that interesting. It only told him what he already knew, that the H2 outnumber us by more every day. But most H2 think they’re human, and the Core want to keep it that way. My dad seemed pretty eager to keep this technology a secret, too. So why was he scanning everyone? And what do those anomalies represent? It can’t be hybrids, because when humans and H2s reproduce, the result is another H2, which is why the population numbers are the way they are. So . . . is it some next step in our evolution?
“I thought I might find you down here,” Christina says as she peeks through the door I left open. Her hair spills over her shoulders. She looks amazing in my clothes. Or maybe it’s the fact that she’s here at all.
“Morning,” I say, pulling my gaze from her body and peering around the room. And as soon as I do, I see it, something that wasn’t in the lab at home. On the desk in the corner is a notebook. I stride over to it, swallowing back hope. It’s a simple Steno, full of scrawled calculations and diagrams, none of which make sense to me. That’s saying something, since I was studying some pretty advanced mathematics before everything went to hell. I turn page after page, looking for something familiar and finding nothing. And finally, I get to the last page with writing on it—the rest of the pages are blank. But on that page, it says Find it in 20204 scribbled in unusually sloppy handwriting, like my dad was in a hurry. And at the bottom of the page, it says Race: “Sicarii.”
“What’s a Sicarii?” Christina asks, appearing at my shoulder.
“It’s Latin for ‘assassin,’” I say, thinking back to my language lessons. “Probably the perfect word to describe Race Lavin.” He was, after all, responsible for my dad’s death.
“And the number?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a zip code?” I punch it into my dad’s GPS, and sure enough—20204 is a zip code located within Washington, DC, containing a few major government departments. “I wonder if this is where the Core is headquartered or something.”
“Please don’t tell me you want to go there.” She sounds frightened.
“Yeah, you and I are going to wage an assault on the US Department of Health and Human Services.” I gesture at the rack of weapons along the wall. “That doesn’t sound fun to you?”
She smacks my arm. “You’re so obnoxious.” But she doesn’t seem as scared now, which makes me smile.
“My priority is to find whatever my dad wanted me to, and if I have to go to DC, I will. But first I need to see what else he left for me here.”
“Are those security cameras?” Christina points over my shoulder.
I turn to a set of screens to the left of Dad’s desk. “Yeah, probably. That’s what he had set up at home.”
She laughs. “Is that your room?”
I glance up to the screen in the top row and see my room . . . but it’s not the room we slept in last night. It’s my room at home. I recognize the spill of dirty laundry off the edge of the bed, the sneakers on the floor, the clutter of papers and books on the bedside table. “Yeah . . .” I take a closer look at the screens. “These are from all over. Look—” I point to a screen in the middle row, where bright sunshine glares from a window in a living room that looks like the one upstairs. “It’s only five in the morning on the East Coast. This must be in a safe house that’s somewhere else entirely. And look at that one.” I point to the bottom row, where security cameras show our backs as we gaze at the screen. “These are from here, obviously.”
Christina’s hand closes over my forearm. “And that?”
The bottom left screen shows a yard filled with weeds. In the distance is a field. It’s the front of this house. And the sight of it sends adrenaline exploding through my system. Because there’s a blond guy climbing the rickety porch stairs.
We’ve been found.
“STAY HERE,” I SAY TO CHRISTINA AS I STRIDE OVER TO the wall rack and pull a semi-auto pistol from one of the pegs. Like all things my father made, it’s black, sleek, and dangerous. Once I’ve got it cocked and locked, I glance over to see my girlfriend staring at me with wide eyes.
“He’s in the house,” she whispers, pointing to a screen next to the one that displays the yard—and this one shows the interior of the shack. I can’t believe I didn’t notice the camera when I came in, but this guy doesn’t, either. He’s skinny and young-looking. More like a boy than a man. Younger even than I am. His eyes are focused on the two doors at the back of the main room, just like mine were.
“He won’t get in,” I assure her. “There’s no way—” My mouth snaps shut as he pulls the rusty nail from the ceiling and sticks it in the hole in the floor. We hear the machinery working above us, the floor moving aside, the stairway to the basement being revealed. “Okay, take this,” I say, walking toward her and holding out the gun. “You see this little thing?” I touch the thumb safety. “If he comes in here, you point this at him, and if he threatens you, slide this down and start pulling the trigger. Do not mess around.”
She gingerly takes the pistol, and I curl my hands around hers, showing her how to hold it. “Tate, he looks like a harmless kid.”
I meet her dark blue gaze. “So do I.”
She swallows hard and nods. I head over to the rack, grab myself another, and jog out the door, shutting it behind me. I take the stairs to the main level two at a time, knowing the kid is probably already at the door, wondering if he could possibly know the code to get in, wondering who the hell he is. I reach the top of the steps and pause, pressing myself against the wall and listening.
From the kitchen comes the crinkling of plastic wrap. What the fuck. He’s already inside. I creep silently through the living room and peek around the wall, into the kitchen. The kid has his back to me and is shoving crackers from a Number Ten into his mouth. I raise the weapon, aim it at the back of his head, and thumb the safety off. At the muted click, the kid freezes.
“Tell me who you are, or I’m going to ruin your meal permanently,” I say.
The meal falls from his grasp, sending soup and dried fruit and nuts spattering across the floor. “D-don’t, please,” the kid whispers, raising his hands in the air. “I’m just looking for Uncle George.”
I frown. “Who the hell are you?”
The kid looks over his shoulder at me. He’s a few inches shorter than I am, wearing wire-framed glasses over bright green eyes now glazed with anxiety. His blond hair flops over his forehead. “Leo Thomas. Can I turn around?”
I step back. “Go ahead, but keep those hands up.”
He obeys. His Adam’s apple bobs as he stares into the barrel of my weapon. “If you’re not Tate Archer, I’m going to be very disappointed.”
I step forward and press the weapon to his forehead. “I’m not playing, Leo. How did you know how to get in here?”
His eyes are round and slightly crossed as he peers up at the black snout of the gun. “Um. Having trouble thinking straight. Imminent death on the brain.”
I roll my eyes and move away, but only a little. And I wait.
He draws in a shaky breath. “I’m looking for my uncle George. He was supposed to be here if something ever went wrong.”
I arch an eyebrow.
Leo’s fingers twitch nervously. “I think something went wrong.”
“And if I told you my name was Tate?”
He smiles. “I’d be really relieved.”
“Because it means I’m in good hands.”
“How would you know?”
“Because your dad told me so. And it didn’t take much to know he’d use your mom’s middle name as his password.”
I grit my teeth and take a few more steps back. “Dude. I need you to tell me your story. Now.”
“Do I have to stand here with my hands in the air while I do it? I mean, I could, but—”
I flick the safety on and lower the weapon. “How did you know my dad?”
He grins. “I knew you were Tate. I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’ve known your dad for as long as I can remember.” His smile falters when I don’t return his enthusiasm. “He’d come for Fifty board meetings, and he’d visit me whenever he was in town.”
“How do you know about The Fifty?” This kid can’t be older than fourteen, and my mom told me that members of The Fifty didn’t tell their kids about the H2 or anything until they were at least sixteen. It was certainly a shock when I found out, though the circumstances had something to do with it.
“My parents were members. The Thomases. But . . .” His glasses slip a little on the bridge of his nose. “They died. About eight years ago. Car accident. My dad was the only Thomas left, except for me. So The Fifty raised me at the headquarters in Chicago, and I’ve been allowed to sit in on board meetings. I can’t vote, though. Not until I’m sixteen.”
So this kid can probably tell me a lot. And he looks fairly harmless. I relax a bit. “You said you thought something went wrong. What have you heard?”
“What happened to your dad, for one.” He shakes his head. “I want you to know I don’t believe anything they’re saying about him on the news. I know it’s a big lie made up by the Core.”
My stomach feels hollow. “He’s really dead, Leo. I was there when it happened.”
“I know. I mean . . . the rest of it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“How he’s a terrorist, how he was going to blow up that school in Manhattan.”
“What?” I say with a laugh, though it comes out strangled.
He looks over my shoulder at the television in the living room. “It’s all over the networks. You can see for yourself.”
I pivot on my heel, keeping him in my periphery in case he makes a move. I grab the remote and flip channels until I find CNN, and after a minute of staring, I see it scrolling across the news ticker at the bottom of the screen: Frederick Archer’s body to be released by Secaucus medical examiner’s office . . . NYPD’s quick action averted yet another school tragedy . . . would have been the largest domestic terrorist attack since Oklahoma City . . .
“Oh my God,” I breathe, rage crackling in my chest. “This is bullshit.” And that’s what Leo meant about the Core’s lies. Race kept everything quiet while he was chasing me, but now that he’s lost me, he’s probably spreading this story to get me to do something rash and stupid, to lure me out.
“Well, not everyone buys it,” Leo says. “Especially because of her.” He points to the screen, a bemused smile on his face. They’re showing a clip of an interview with a spindly older woman who looks really familiar. Helen Kuipers is her name. I turn up the volume.
“—telling you, it was some kind of radiation device. Or a laser. I don’t know, but the kid was waving it over everyone, and when it got to me, it changed color, from red to blue.”
It’s the lunch lady from the cafeteria that day, one of the few who flashed blue—human—beneath the light of the scanner my best friend, Will, had snatched from me.
“She’s been everywhere over the last two days,” Leo comments. “Making the most of her three minutes of fame, I guess. She thinks she was marked or irradiated or something, and she’s insisting it was linked to some government conspiracy . . . Really, she comes off as crazy. She’s one of the only witnesses willing to talk about what they saw, though, so she’s gotten a lot of play. I’m assuming the Core were able to intimidate the rest. But this lady thinks the whole blowup was about that glorified flashlight thing.”
So Leo knows about The Fifty and the Core and my dad, but apparently he doesn’t know about the scanner. He’s looking at me like he’s hoping I’ll explain, but I’m distracted as the clip ends and a somber anchorwoman appears on-screen. “Authorities have confirmed that Helen Kuipers, one of the witnesses to the events in the cafeteria of Beacon High School on Monday, has been missing since yesterday morning. Her daughter says Ms. Kuipers never arrived home after taping an interview in the WABC studio. Police are investigating.”
So the lunch lady talked, and now she’s missing. Just like the Core, silencing any human who poses a threat to their secret. “They got to her,” I say.
“Who?” It’s Christina. She’s got the gun in her hand, and she’s cautiously watching me and Leo from the hallway. Her gaze flicks to the screen as they show my dad’s driver’s license photo. Beneath his photo, it says “Frederick Archer, suspected terrorist.” Her eyes get wide. “Oh no . . .”
“Who are you?” asks Leo.
She tears her eyes from the TV. “Christina. I’m Tate’s girlfriend. Who are you?”
His brow furrows as he looks her over. “Which family are you from?”
“This is Leo,” I tell her, pointedly ignoring his question, especially since he ignored hers. “He was raised at The Fifty’s headquarters, so he knows almost everything.”
She nods at me, and something silent passes between us. We’re not going to mention that she’s H2. Some of The Fifty, most notably the Bishop family, are distinctly homicidal when it comes to the planet’s dominant species.
“Sit down,” I say to Leo. “And keep your hands where I can see them.”
He settles himself on the couch. “Are we going to get past this at some point? I’m on your side, and I was hoping you could be on mine. Uncle Angus left in a hurry after Uncle George disappeared, and I—”
“What do you mean, ‘George disappeared’?” I ask.
“About three days ago. Right after the board meeting. Angus lost touch with him. No one knows where he went.”
Christina bites her lip and comes to stand next to me, looking down at Leo with curiosity. I glance at her out of the corner of my eye and then say, “George is dead, too, Leo. He was killed by the Core yesterday morning.”
All the blood drains from Leo’s face. “What?” he whispers, his eyes going shiny.
When she registers the pain on his face, Christina shoves her weapon at me and then goes to sit next to Leo on the couch. She takes his hand as tears streak down his face. “It was quick,” she says quietly. “He probably didn’t have time to be scared or in pain.” Leo curls in on himself, and she pats his back while my own eyes burn. I miss George, too. I was depending on him to help me. He was a good man, and—
“Wait. He was missing for three days?” I ask. He was killed only twenty-four hours ago. “Angus didn’t know he was coming to Charlottesville?”
Leo wipes his face with his sleeve and peers up at me. “What’s in Charlottesville?” he asks in a raspy voice.
Christina’s brow furrows as she meets my eyes. “Maybe your mom asked him to keep it secret?”
“She didn’t ask him to go to Charlottesville until Tuesday morning at the earliest.”
“But today’s Friday, and the last time anyone heard from him was Monday night,” Leo says, sniffling. “He was supposed to come to headquarters for a meeting on Tuesday, but he never showed.”
“It could fit,” Christina says. “By that time, your mom had called him.”
“Angus and a few of George’s family members went to his hotel room in the afternoon, and it was a mess.” He grimaces, and his voice cracks as he says, “They said it looked like there had been a struggle. They thought maybe the Core had taken him away. But I hoped he’d escaped and come here.”
His face crumples again, and he covers it with his hands, his shoulders shaking. Christina puts her arm around him and scoots closer, whispering comforting words to this stranger, this boy who understands my world better than I do. The last ten minutes has added yet another dimension of mystery to this whole thing, and I can’t take it. “I’m going back down to the lab,” I say, clicking off the television to suppress my urge to throw it across the room. “You’re going to come so I can keep an eye on you. And if you turn on us, Leo, please believe that I’ll kill you, okay?”
Christina shoots me a look that says Is the asshole act really necessary? I clench my teeth. Enough people have violated my trust in the last few days to make me permanently wary, and I’d think she would understand that. This kid is playing on her sympathies, and that’s pissing me off, too. Not to mention the fact that my dad is being framed as a freaking terrorist. Leo’s lucky I don’t kick his ass right now just to work off the sheer, blinding frustration of it all.
The three of us head down to the lab, and I hunch over the keypad and enter my code, not wanting him to see it. Once we’re in, I grab a stool and settle Leo in the corner by the door. “Are those vibracoustic probes?” he asks, pointing at a set of wands on a rack across the room. “Uncle Fred let me help him on that design, and—”
“We’re not here to reminisce,” I snap, not wanting to hear how this kid had a better relationship with my dad than I did. “Just . . . be quiet, okay? I need to finish searching this place, and then we’ll decide our next move.”
His mouth shuts, but his chin trembles as he nods. Christina stands close to him, her arm over his scrawny shoulders. Her scowl tells me she no longer believes my behavior is an act. She’s just thinking I’m an asshole. And I don’t really have the energy to explain myself to her, so I head over to the population counter screen. When I touched the display in the other lab, it had showed some plans, like a blueprint for something. It might be for the satellite, or it might be for the scanner itself. And since my dad said the scanner was the key to our survival, I need to find out as much about it as possible. If I can do that here and now, so much the better, because the Core is probably—
“Tate.” Christina’s voice is like a whip, sharp and sudden. “Look at the surveillance screens.”
I do. And my heart just about stops. There are people in the New York apartment. In the middle row of screens, the ones that show the place where I’ve lived for my entire life, black-suited men are milling about in the living room. Core agents. In my home.
I lunge for the display, seeking a volume switch, anything to activate some sound so I can hear what they’re saying, but there’s nothing. So I squint at the screens, trying to read lips. I don’t recognize any of the men. Race isn’t there. But one of them, a guy with a hook nose and hair the color of a storm cloud, seems to be in charge. He partially covers his mouth as he points around the apartment, directing the men where to search. It’s like he knows there are cameras on him, and knows exactly where they are.
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